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John Bellany – a life revealed

My first study visit with the Open College of the Arts was at The National Gallery in Edinburgh where Olivia Irvine and myself met up with a group of students from far and wide to see the John Bellany retrospective currently running until the 27th January.

The show starts with his college work done as a very young man and concludes with recent paintings made aged 70, so that, coupled with the extreme autobiographical nature of his painting, means that we were really seeing one man’s life spread out across the walls of the gallery.
I hadn’t realised before seeing this show how important drawing was to Bellany as he developed as an artist. There are many working drawings in vitrines in the middle of the gallery rooms, often relating to the paintings on the adjacent walls. This gives students an insight into process. Bellany has a drawing style which is almost like stitch – reminiscent of Van Gogh. It was explained to us that he taught himself to draw by copying prints of old master drawings which he had acquired. This was part of the story but those quieter more academic studies were contrasted with the lively and passionate sketches of fish processors and fisher people from his home village, or the poignant later scratchings of an artist in self destruct. So committed was he to documenting, and so central to his mental functioning was drawing, that he requested a pencil as soon as he recovered consciousness after a liver transplant. He then went on to use drawing whilst recuperating as a pain relief so successfully that doctors made a study of his behaviour.
If you are interested in portraiture, expressive figurative painting or using autobiographical narrative in your work, then this is a great show to see. As a tutor, I enjoyed the ambition of the young Bellany, coming to art college as a young man and launching into enormous history paintings modelled on the great genre painters of the past. I also liked his belief in his own validity as it were;  with the subject of his paintings being his own family and neighbours. A young student I was speaking to recently was telling me that having an exhibition made him feel like a ‘real artist’. I suspect the only way to make good art is to believe in yourself that you are a real artist, which just means that you are making a commitment to yourself to pursue your creativity and ideas wholeheartedly. It was inspiring here, as always, to see a retrospective spanning so many decades and revealing a life spent in art.
Olivia and I were lucky enough to meet the curator on a previous visit and this gave us a bit of inside information which we could share with students and we also had a group tour from a gallery staff member on the day which was interesting and informative. Olivia had cleverly hired a room for us to have a mid way discussion in, and I was really impressed with the knowledge and sophistication of understanding of our students – a great bunch. My next study day will be the Jim Shaw at the Baltic. I like the Cal Arts crew so am looking forward to it, and again it is an artist who has been making work for 50 years and still going strong. Probably stronger than Bellany in fact, although as a group I think we decided that by now John Bellany deserves to make a few wee Tuscan landscapes after 6 rooms of heartache and angst, not to mention his poor first and third wife deserving a  bit of a rest.


Posted by author: Emma Drye
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One thought on “John Bellany – a life revealed

  • Yes I agree the exhibition was like a big slice of life. It was very cleverly curated to show his progression over the decades without bombarding us with overkill. Bellany has hundreds of paintings. The curator, Keith Hartley, made the trip to Barga in Italy, where John Bellany now lives for much of the year, to select work. It must have been a difficult task. I was impressed by the ambition of his work, especially the early paintings inspired by the fishing industry in Port Seton. I hadn’t realised that religion played such a large part in his life. His family were staunch protestants and this faith, mixed with the superstitions of the fisher people’s way of life, informed much of his work- the crucifixion features heavily. He also makes references to several myths and stories about the sea which balances the autobiographical nature of his work.

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